Over the past two Wednesdays in Bible Study we have looked at a survey of scriptures to see what the Bible has to say about death, dying, and grief. This was on the occasion of All Saints Day, which we celebrated this past Sunday. But we also know that grief does not keep the same calendar that we do, and so in a sense these conversations are always timely.
We can think of death as an arc with three distinct parts.
First there is dying: the process, often either longer or shorter than we would like, in which we come to terms with our end or that of a loved one. For centuries the church has had a notion of what it means to “die well,” making note of specific, time-honored needs—many of which, it turns out, are expressed by Jesus from the cross.
Then there is death itself, in one sense a transition, but in another sense an event all to itself. Scripture speaks of death as the one final enemy. And yet we know that death can also come as a friend.
And then of course there is what comes next. For the deceased, scripture gives us a multitude of images and stories to draw from, each of them pointing to the mystery that we return in wholeness to the God who created us.
The part of “what comes next” we don’t talk as much about is the life of those who are left behind.
Of course, we are given hope in the promise of resurrection in the end, and that we will see those whom we love again across the Jordan. We’re told that light shines in the darkness, and that while weeping may last for the night, joy is waiting in the morning.
And yet we also know that there are many mornings in grief when joy feels absent.
Even more, there are simply so many mornings. Sometimes talk of reuniting in the end can come as cold comfort, a hope so distant it is hard to see.
What does scripture have to say for us as we find our way through the days grieving terrible loss?
There are not many stories of biblical characters who offer a model. It’s what makes the books of Job and Ruth so vital. In Ruth, the story arc actually follows Naomi, who begins in bitter loss and ends with an unexpected new life, found in a return to family and place.
Job is known for his suffering, which might lead us to think the story simply ends with his death, when in fact Job finds his way through the darkness to a place of acceptance, if not resolution. Not the man he was before the calamity, but a new person shaped both by it and a growing faith that there is yet more to come.
Yet, perhaps the most powerful word comes from the prophet Jeremiah speaking to the exiles in Babylon. His invitation is not to give in to the fantasy of a quick return or despair that life is over, but instead to keep living where they are. To plant gardens and eat of them, build houses and live in them, have weddings and grow families and even pray for the place where they now call home.
In short, to commit themselves to the practice of living. It turns out scripture has much to say about how to do this.
And the first step is to live in community with others. It is there where our joy is made complete, but also where the weight of our grief is made lighter.